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Karachi: Ordered Disorder

Laurent Gayer’s book notes violence in the Sindh capital has not differentiated between social class, spanning the breadth of the city

by Khaled Ahmed

In his decade-old book, Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City, researcher Laurent Gayer offers stark descriptions of the violence that has gripped the Sindh capital for decades.

One of the largest cities in the world, Karachi boasts an unenviable body count, with victims of muggings now replacing the bullet-riddled bodies stashed in gunny bags that represented the target killings representing armed conflicts between the various groups that vie for its control. Gayer notes these “bori-band lash” proved an inspiration for the city’s artistic community, with poets in particular pointing to the false sense of normalcy—the apparent normalcy of the abnormal—that accompanied the death and disorder of Karachiites’ everyday life.

The book highlights the important place poetry has occupied in Pakistan since the country’s creation in 1947, with special focus on Karachi. The city, after Partition, became predominantly Urdu-speaking after the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees from India, the muhajir, a term institutionalized by the 1951 Census. In the 1980s, the term was appropriated by their descendants, with traditions of Urdu poetry becoming a key element in the cultural make-up of the migrant population. Verse also became a channel of communication with the nascent state as well as a powerful tool of mobilization. As an example, Gayer notes some refugees applying for evacuee properties tried to lend weight to their requests by including a few Urdu verses in their letters of application. Subsequently, poets provided successive generations of protesters with catchy, ironic or dramatic rhymes, challenging authority in various registers. As Karachi was engulfed by ethnic and political strife in the mid-1980s, Urdu poets were among the most prolific and incisive chroniclers of the city’s plight.

Some poetic verses of the time suggest how violence became routine within a chronic state of emergency. At its peaks in the mid-1990s, even extreme violence became commonplace for residents of Karachi; a strange and fearful occurrence, but one awfully familiar. Violence was brought home—sometimes literally, for parents worrying at their sons’ political activities or at the possibility of their relatives falling prey to potentially deadly rioting.

According to Gayer, Karachi’s predicament differs from other war-torn societies where social change is too rapid for domination to become sustainable, thus precluding the institutionalization of politics and society in a context of chronic uncertainty. In such contexts, such as that of Guinea Bissau, he writes affiliations and configurations of the “players” is constantly in flux. In Karachi, however, the players and the terrains of their confrontation have remained largely constant since the mid-1980s.

Orangi, New Karachi, Korangi and the Lines Area remained major sites of violence from 1995 through 2011, he writes, with other areas remaining “dangerous” from the mid-1980s, the time of Karachi’s first major ethnic riots. However, adds Gayer, some important variations must be factored in. In 1995, he notes, violence was concentrated on Muhajir-dominated areas disputed by the two factions of the MQM. By contrast, the distribution of violence in 2011 revealed the emergence of new protagonists: Sunni sectarian groups fighting among themselves in North Karachi, and Baloch criminals with political ambitions challenging the hegemony of the MQM in Lyari and the Old City.

Regardless, writes, Gayer, some regular patterns emerge, particularly the centrality of the MQM in these battles for the city. He also notes that violence in Karachi cannot be reduced to “slum wars,” as violence in unofficial settlements in Orangi is also reflected in middle-class areas and even upper-class neighborhoods. This violence, he notes, is semi-peripheral: out of the seven major clusters of violence in 2011, six were located in a 7-20 km radius from the city center, drawing a ring of fire around the city.

In 2011, per the book, these major clusters of violence accounted for 1 percent of the murders registered across the city while accounting for 5 percent of the total urban area of Karachi and 8.4 percent of its total population. These enduring socio-spatial patterns of homicidal violence are a preliminary indication that there is more to Karachi’s apparent state of chaos than meets the eye.

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